Anna Karenina | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why do some critics say Dolly is the true heroine of Anna Karenina?

Some critics call Dolly the true heroine of Anna Karenina because she upholds the moral values that are extolled in the novel. Dolly's plight is sympathetic: her husband cheats on her and takes it as his right. He sells her property, impoverishes the family, and shirks his responsibilities as a father. However, in large part for the sake of the children, Dolly stays with Stiva. In Part 6, Chapter 16, she recalls her own opportunities to flirt or cheat with other men, but she stays true to her marriage vows. She does not turn her back on Anna and even visits her and Vronsky in their country house in Part 6, Chapter 17. Most of all, she remains an attentive and devoted mother to her brood of six children. In Tolstoy's view, a woman's role in life is to be a mother and a wife, and despite adversity, Dolly fulfills those roles and emotionally supports her extended family, including Kitty, Anna, and Levin.

How are Anna's and Stiva's acts of adultery in Anna Karenina both similar and different?

Both Anna and Stiva find themselves unable to be sexually satisfied in their marriages and go outside of marriage to fulfill those desires. Both siblings also sacrifice their children to gratify their sexual passions: Anna abandons one child and ignores the other, while Stiva simply ignores all of his children in the pursuit of pleasure. The siblings are different in that Anna feels some guilt about what she has done—first, when she consummates her relationship with Vronsky, and later when she abandons Seryozha. In Part 8, Chapter 30, before she commits suicide, she thinks about how she has betrayed her son. They also differ in that Anna is punished for her adultery while Stiva is not, mostly because Anna leaves her husband for her lover, while Stiva simply maintains two separate lives—one as a husband and one as a cheater. However, Anna is also more severely punished; because she is a woman, she is shunned by society.

In Anna Karenina, why are people of Levin's class sometimes uncomfortable around him?

People of Levin's class feel uncomfortable around him because he is a nonconformist and does not lie for the sake of social civility. Unlike his aristocratic peers, Levin actually does some useful work, which is to farm the land. He is a hands-on estate manager and goes so far as to work with the peasants at times—as when he mows the meadow in Part 3, Chapter 5. Levin also refuses to participate in the zemstvo, the councils created to improve the lives of the peasants, which puts him at odds with the liberals. At the same time, he is not a hard-and-fast traditionalist, so he does not believe that the peasants are simply lazy—as do some of his fellow landowners who think it is a shame that serfdom was abolished. Rather, he wants to figure out the best way to work with the peasants. Levin feels out of sorts in the city, where it appears to him that people carry on a lot of useless occupations. For this reason, many people (for example, Kitty's mother, Princess Shcherbatsky, and Kitty's friend, Countess Nordston) think he is odd and are not thrilled that he is marrying Kitty.

In what ways does Vronsky deserve or not deserve his fate at the end of Anna Karenina?

From one perspective, Vronsky deserves his fate, and from another, fate may have been too harsh with him. Vronsky began pursuing Anna Karenina after he danced with her at the ball in Moscow, and worked for almost a year to wear down her defenses and convince her to commit adultery. He initially felt no guilt about trespassing on her marriage, because he considered husbands to be ridiculous and their wives fair game for romantic officers such as himself. However, as his relationship with Anna develops, he develops an abiding commitment toward her and their child, and spends most of his time and energy trying to make her happy. At one point, he almost kills himself because of his humiliation with regard to the affair. Anna has been acting unreasonably jealous, and she thinks to kill herself to spite him. He has always acted honorably toward Anna, and her extreme spite destroys his life and leaves him with nothing but guilt, sorrow, and regret. Thus, the reader cannot help but sympathize with him and feel that fate dealt him a harsh blow.

How are Levin and Vronsky alike and different in Anna Karenina?

When Anna Karenina meets Levin, she thinks he is like Vronsky and can see why Kitty liked them both. Both Levin and Vronsky are strong, passionate men, and both are loyal and faithful partners once they choose their life mate. Both men are also sexually attracted to the same women—Kitty and Anna. Both Levin and Vronsky are intelligent and compassionate, and they are dedicated to the work they choose. Levin manages his estate and takes an active part in farming the land. Similarly, when Vronsky retires to the country, he becomes a shrewd estate manager. While he does not take a direct interest in farming, he has an active role in building a hospital on his estate. They are different in their moral outlook, although both have a code they live by. Levin believes in the sanctity of marriage, while Vronsky follows a typical officer's code of conduct, which allows both for deceiving women and cuckolding husbands. However, Vronsky's code of conduct becomes more moral as part of the hardship he goes through as Anna's lover. Vronsky and Levin also differ with regard to politics; while Vronsky believes that aristocrats have a role and responsibility in governing the peasants, Levin believes it is waste of time to try to improve their lot through the local councils and courts.

In Anna Karenina, why does Kitty fall for Vronsky if she loves Levin?

Levin had been courting Kitty, but then he ran back to the country after two months because he thought he was not worthy of her love. In the meantime, Vronsky has come into Moscow society and begins courting Kitty. In Part 1, Chapter 12, Kitty's mother, Princess Shcherbatsky, admits that although her daughter loves Vronsky, she has feelings for Levin. In Part 1, Chapter 13, Kitty herself remembers that she has loved Levin since she was a child, and that memory is entwined with memories of her dead brother, because he and Levin were friends together at school. She feels easy with Levin and somewhat awkward with Vronsky, but when she imagines a future with the brilliant officer, she can see her future clearly, while she is not sure what life will be like with Levin. Kitty is very attracted to Vronsky, not just because of his physical appearance, but also because he is a highly eligible bachelor with rank and wealth, and her mother is pushing the match. She begins to get attached to him after Levin aborts his courtship. She is not expecting a marriage proposal from Levin, and a match with Vronsky would be "brilliant" and seems imminent. It makes sense to her, at the moment that Levin proposes, to turn him down in favor of the superficially more desirable match. Kitty's love for Levin did not begin as a sexual love, and her amorous feelings for Levin have not been given time to develop, while her amorous feelings for Vronsky have blossomed. This is why Kitty initially turns Levin down. What she actually feels for Vronsky is strong sexual attraction, while she loves Levin based on more than mere physical attraction.

How does Anna's opium addiction affect her state of mind in Anna Karenina?

Anna's opium addiction fuels her feelings of jealousy and rage, and plays a large role in the depression that pushes her to take her life at the end of the novel. As Ann Marie Basom (1994) points out in "Anna Karenina and Opiate Addiction," Anna becomes psychologically and physically dependent on the drug, and this causes personality changes. Anna uses morphine to sleep (as she mentions to Dolly in Part 6, Chapter 24), but in Part 7, Chapter 26, the narrator mentions that she takes a second dose after she cannot calm herself because of a fight she has had with Vronsky, showing that she has begun using opium to deaden her emotional pain. People addicted to opium experience irritability and depression as well as the psychological symptom of paranoia. Anna has become increasingly irritable and depressed because of her social isolation, but those feelings are elevated by her drug addiction. She also becomes increasingly convinced that Vronsky is losing his interest in her, and her paranoia increases as well. Her perceptions toward the end of the novel becoming increasingly unreliable. For example, in Part 7, Chapter 24, she is convinced he wants to marry Princess Sorokin, and in Part 7, Chapter 25, she imagines Vronsky is disgusted by the gesture her hand makes as she handles her teacup. Her distorted perceptions are the consequences of her drug addiction.

In Anna Karenina, why does Karenin agree to take on the burden of adultery after he forgives Anna and Vronsky?

Karenin has a genuinely transcendent moment in Part 4, Chapter 17, in which he is unexpectedly suffused with Christian charity. He experiences a disinterested love for his wife and forgives her as well as Vronsky. Although Anna has, up until now, been accusing him of being an insensitive automaton, she knows his true nature—that his feelings run deep, although he is not able to express them. This is why she asks him for forgiveness; she knows he is capable of it. Karenin deeply loves his wife and is also a sincere, Orthodox Christian. Even though he is very angry, he is inclined to forgive her, especially given the fact that she seems to be dying. After Anna recovers, his feelings of charity do not disappear, and he hopes they can repair their marriage. He is willing to do anything to make Anna happy, even let her go. When Stiva asks him to divorce Anna and take on the burden of adultery so that she can remarry and keep her child Seryozha (in Part 4, Chapter 22), he has already been thinking of doing that. Karenin knows that his wife does not love him. In that moment, he is willing to make a supreme sacrifice for her as an act of love.

In what ways is Stiva in Anna Karenina a truly evil character, as some critics have called him?

Stiva's character is indeed evil, even though his evil has a banality to it—an ordinariness that hides in plain sight. Many readers find Stiva to be a likable character, and the narrator points out how much everybody likes him. He has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and a gift for making himself agreeable. But he is a chameleon who gets what he wants and treats every human being as a function—that is, not as a subject, but as an object. He is devoid of conscience, which the narrator shows again and again. For example, when Dolly finds out about his adultery (in Part 1, Chapter 2), he only regrets getting caught. He neglects his wife and children, selling off pieces of his wife's estate to finance his affairs and good times, and gives no thought to foisting more and more of his family responsibilities onto Levin. In Part 3, Chapter 7, the narrator points out that Stiva had a hard time remembering he is married. At the end of the novel, Anna's suicide hardly seems to make a dent on him. In Part 8, Chapter 2, he barely registers regret for his sister's death before moving on to greet Vronsky as "a hero and an old friend."

In what ways is the eponymous heroine of Anna Karenina a narcissist and a liar, as some critics have claimed?

A common reading of the novel Anna Karenina is that Anna is heroic for leaving a loveless marriage and pursuing her own happiness, and she is destroyed by a vindictive society that treats adultery in men and women differently. Moreover, she must give up her son because he is his father's property. An alternative reading, however, tells another story. Anna is, indeed, in a loveless marriage, but she lies about Karenin being an unfeeling and heartless machine who cares only about public opinion. The fact that she asks for his forgiveness when she thinks she is dying in Part 4, Chapter 17, shows that she understands her husband's true nature. Anna has cast herself as a romantic heroine in her drama of infidelity. She leaves Seryozha by choice, because Karenin is initially willing to take responsibility for adultery in divorce proceedings so she can keep her son. This would have allowed her to marry Vronsky. But she does not choose this option because a life with her son and Vronsky would have cast a pallor on her romantic drama and would tarnish her allure in her lover's eyes. Anna's attachment to Seryozha is partly a displacement of love that she cannot give to Karenin. Once she has Vronsky, however, Seryozha becomes less essential. Moreover, she sacrifices her son for her pride, because she does not want to be in Karenin's debt.

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